Memory power – how does your garden grow?

March 6, 2012

I love it when students tell me about sites they’ve found/are using as it’s an indication to me that they are really switched on to independent language learning. A month or so ago a colleagues drew my attention to Memrise, a site for helping you learn vocabulary by stimulating the brain to make connections between a word and its meaning.  The “mem” is in fact short for mnemonic and could be in the form of an image, story, phrase, audio or video and so on.  I had a brief look at it when my attention was first drawn to this site but it was only when one of my year 12 students mentioned recently that she had been using it that I gave it a closer look.

Memrise is a wiki and aims to provide a fun way to learning languages and facts by creating a community of learners who share their own “mems”. The concept is simple; your memories start as “seeds”, you nurture them in your “greenhouse” (or short term memory) and finally you can harvest them in your “garden”  (long term memory).  Over 50 languages are available and once you have created your free account you can access any of the courses within each language.  The “courses”  are created by members of the Memrise community and can be anything from the vocabulary featured in a chapter of a course book to a thematic list of words.

When you start a “course” the words appear as flashcards; there are also sound files and you can see what “mems” have been created by other users which could help you learn the words.  The words are presented in groups and every so often you are “tested”; this takes various forms from multiple choice recognition to writing the English for the word, or writing the word in the target language.  In the case of the latter there is a bank of special characters that can be used in the case of French/German words etc that require accents or umlauts.  You get instant feedback and you hear the word spoken.  This stage of the learning process is the “watering” where words are constantly revisited whilst new words are introduced.  Once the words are well established in your short term memory (after several “waterings”) they are ready to be “harvested” or transfered to the “garden” of your long term memory – you will get an email telling you when your “plants” are ready for this process.  Even here your “plants” will need periodic “watering”.

I had a look at a few of the Mandarin courses first and was impressed with some of the visual mnemonics especially those where the character is essentially a pictogram.  There are also some great “mems” where complex characters are broken down into their individual elements or radicals such as 青 (green) being made up of the radicals “one” + “earth” + “moon” where we can think of the whole of our natural (green) environment.  Amongst the “courses” are the Asset languages Breakthrough word list, various HSK word lists and vocabulary from individual chapters of text books such as Jinbu, the Edexcel GCSE course book and Chinese made easy. 

For learners of other languages the same principles apply.  Amongst the French  “courses” I found both the OCR and the Edexcel GCSE word lists;  AQA is probably there as well if you scroll through the courses for long enough. Amongst the German courses there is one based on AQA AS vocabulary and one on Edexcel GCSE vocabulary.  If you don’t find the exact course you are looking for you could always create one for your learners, or get them to do it – there is a dictionary for each language!

If learning 50 + languages is not enough for you there are also courses where you can acquire knowledge, such as the wild flowers or trees of Britain, or the names and faces of the members of the British cabinet or the Chinese Politburo standing committee!!

All in all it’s a great way to learn vocabulary and the emphasis on making connections and frequent revisiting helps to make it stick.

Pinyin perfect with New Concept Mandarin – best online resources for learning Chinese #5

February 28, 2012

Getting the tone correct is one of the challenges of learning Mandarin. Get it wrong and you could unwittingly be saying something offensive or simply talking about sugar rather than soup – could be interesting in a restaurant!

Sound discrimination exercises can be helpful but if they are only done in a whole class situation there will be some learners who still don’t “get it”.  Some, but not all, textbooks come with a CD of audio files – this is particularly useful as it’s only by doing a lot of listening that you can really get to grips with the sound of Mandarin and the various tones.  Finding an audio file for a specific pinyin sound however, is not always easy and that’s where the guide to Chinese pronunciation on a site like New Concept Mandarin comes into its own.

This guide explains what pinyin is and about the tones, and has a clickable pronunciation table with sound files.   You can click on a sound and then compare that with the same sound but a different tone;  the movement in the tone is also represented visually.  For those pupils who find some combinations of initials and finals tricky, such as words beginning with x, q and zh this can be a really useful tool, and ultimately it can help them along the way to becoming independent language learners.

Crack the code!

November 17, 2011

The average non-Chinese person looking at Chinese characters may well think they are a mass of lines and squiggles which are  impossibly difficult to fathom.  According to Wikipedia there are 47,000 + characters in the Kangxi dictionary whilst this blog claims that there are in excess of 80,000 characters – a truly daunting prospect for a learner of Chinese.  Moreover, there is some disagreement as to the number you need to know in order to read a newspaper depending on which source you consult.  The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – the People’s Republic of China only standardised test for non native speakers) at advanced level is based on approximately 2,600 characters giving a total vocabulary of about 5,000 words.

Learners of Chinese will know however, that  the characters are made up of building blocks or components called radicals of which there are just over 200, so what at first might seem impossible to fathom actually can be decoded more easily once these have been learnt.  I’ve just recently come across Cracking the code website which offers learners a useful way of getting to grips with characters and how they are built up.

This site breaks the characters down into components which are classified as being derived from humanity, nature, culture abstract or “other”.  These in turn are broken down into further subcategories.  “Nature” for example is categorised into ‘earth’, ‘heaven’, ‘plants’, ‘animals’ and ‘animal parts’, each of which is then further subdivided e.g. “earth” components include those for earth, field, gold, jade, stone, mountain, hill, cliff, cave and valley.  Clicking on one of these individual components then brings up a screen showing details of that component.  This includes the meaning, a sound file, the number of strokes needed to write it, its “radical” number for the purpose of looking it up in a dictionary and a list of characters where it is used in combination with another radical.  The learner can then click on one of these characters to get the sound file and an explanation of the breakdown of the character and how they combine with other characters to create new words.

The site is easy to use and would be particularly useful for a learner with a basic knowledge of the most common radicals wanting to increase their vocabulary.  The one thing it does not seem to have are animated characters showing the stroke order, but these can be seen on the Nciku dictionary site.

Dictation revisited

August 2, 2011

Anyone of a certain generation will instantly recognise the words in the image (left)  from the dictation exercise.  This was how listening skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, grammar and spelling were taught, practised and  tested in the days before course books came with recordings on cassette tape or CD.  For those of us who were good at this sort of thing it became a game for example,  to spot the agreements with the preceding direct object in French (and other such traps designed to catch you out) but for those with weak spelling and an insecure knowledge of grammar I suspect it was a dull, dry exercise which further reinforced a sense a failure.   At some of my workshops there has been a look of horror on the faces of  a number of delegates if I announce that we are going to do a little dictation exercise, so even those who have ended up making languages their business have been mentally scarred for life!

I was surprised to discover in the course of doing some research for this post that until comparatively recently  the dictation as a test was part of the Edexcel GCE French O level test available to international centres, and although I would in no way wish to revive it as a testing method it does have some merits which are perhaps worth re-examining.

When I first started to learn Chinese about 5 years ago I soon realised that if I was going to make any progress at all I would have to do a lot of listening to get my ear tuned into the different tones so I started listening to Chinesepod.  As I hadn’t  paid to subscribe to the site I didn’t have access to the PDF transcripts, and so I treated the dialogues in the podcasts essentially as a dictation exercise.  I used to transcribe what I heard in Pinyin and I then used my dictionary (Oxford beginner’s) to look up and write down the characters;  in effect I was creating my own transcript.

I  later discovered that with the early versions of Chinesepod that it was possible to access a transcript (in both pinyin and characters) by clicking on the Show lyrics  tab for podcasts  downloaded into Itunes;  I could then check whether I had “got it right”.  Subsequently these transcripts accompanying the Itunes downloads only showed characters, but with some cutting and pasting into an online dictionary it is still possible to create your own transcript in pinyin.

In the course of the podcast the hosts would go through the meaning of each individual word/character so I could be reasonably confident that that I had chosen the correct character.  What this exercise made me do, and one of the great merits of dictation, was to listen very attentively, to  focus on the sound spelling link of the language, and even more importantly in Chinese, the tone.

It was this  homing in on the sound spelling link (together with the exceptions and the hazards, such as  the silent vowel sounds in French, to name but one)  that helped me to develop my understanding of spoken French all those years ago,  and to demonstrate my knowledge of grammar.  Of course there were lots of things wrong with dictation.  The texts were in often too long and dull, the speed at which they were  delivered was unnatural, they were rarely examples of authentic interchanges and didn’t prepare you for the cut and thrust of following the high speed utterances of a native speaker.  Furthermore they were seen as being totally in the control of the teacher with the learner in a passive role in as much as generating new language was concerned.  But that needn’t be the case……

Dictation actually has a lot going for it:

  • In a whole class setting all learners are involved – it is even possible to differentiate by providing lower ability learners with part of the text and they have to listen out for the words in the gaps
  • It fits in very well with self and peer assessment .  Pupils self or peer assess and set their own targets for improvement (PLTS – reflective learners); for example to do some additional listening practice in order to be able to discriminate between particular sounds.
  • It can be a useful settling exercise in a large noisy class.
  • It supports phonics work in focusing on the relationship between sound and spelling.
  • It is flexible exercise which can be adapted to individual, pair and group work.
  • Depending on how it is used it can lead to the creative use of language and interactive oral communication.

In an excellent book I’ve recently dusted off the shelf, Dictation by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri there are suggestions for “dictation” activities suitable for all ages and levels, and although the examples are in English the principles are easily adapted to any language.  It’s worth checking out..


The language of love

February 14, 2011

“I like”, “I love” – the stuff of expressing simple opinions and of course Valentine’s Day.  This can be a good opportunity to recycle a lot of high frequency vocabulary and structures within a different context.  So, not only loving and liking, but also giving, receiving and buying in past, present and future, and  using pronouns (just think about the agreement with the preceding direct object in French, or the word order rules with pronouns and nouns in German – DANPAD;  dative, then accusative for 2 nouns, accusative, then dative for 2 pronouns).  It’s also an opportunity for learners to personalise language and show independence in their language learning by using dictionaries to work out how to say something that is meaningful to them.

As ever I have been on the lookout for some suitable authentic materials, particularly video, to give a bit of cultural input to my Chinese lessons.  Valentine’s Day is not a traditional Chinese festival (their equivalent would be the Double seventh festival – Qīxī   七夕) as can be seen by the responses of the older people interviewed in this video.  However, it’s clear that with globalization some western habits have made their way East and red roses (and some of the other paraphernalia of Valentine’s Day) can now certainly be found on the streets of Beijing and other major Chinese cities.  This particular video comes from a series entitled Sexy Beijing so is unlikely to get past most schools’ filtering systems; I’ll have to rely on my Realplayer download to show excerpts in class. 

However, I’ve also found this one which is quite short and which, like the Sexy Beijing one, has English subtitles making it accessible to all learners, even at a basic level.  They can pick out words they do know and the context helps them to understand and pick up the new ones.  For a short video without commentary there is also this one which can be used as a stimulus for oral work.

Whilst scouting around for suitable videos I came across this video on how to say “I love you” in different languages.  It struck me that this could be a good video to show pupils sceptical of the value of learning languages; in fact in the past in the face of the “Why are do we have to learn French?” question I have often pointed out to pupils (often boys) that they never know who they might fall in love with and that they never know when their knowledge of a language or their language learning strategies might come in handy!

For a completely different approach to Valentine’s Day Liz Black, from Stokesley School, North Yorkshire, talked at last year’s Language World about working Valentine’s Day into a Fairtrade theme, looking at the cost and origin of ordinary roses compared to Fairtrade ones.

And a final thought – perhaps today is really the day to get our pupils speaking with a spot of speed dating in class!

Pronunciation – does it matter?

January 18, 2011

“Does it matter?”

  If you are a teacher you’ve probably heard that question dozens of times;  does it matter if you don’t spell it right, does it matter if the grammar’s wrong, does it matter if you don’t say it right?  Of course the answer will depend on the context.  What are they trying to do?  Have they been able to communicate even if there are mistakes?  Are we trying to build their confidence and fluency,  in which case we might let a few errors pass. If our learners get too hung up on getting things right all the time they won’t experiment, take the risks and develop the skills of being creative language users.  If they are aiming for A* in their written controlled assessment at GCSE then it almost certainly will matter more – they will at least be expected to use their dictionary to get details such as spellings and genders. 

When it comes to speaking there used to be that concept of the “sympathetic native speaker”, but how sympathetic can we be?  Grammatical errors, the wrong words and mispronunciation can all get in the way of communication.  When teaching Chinese correct pronunciation takes on a whole new dimension because of the different tones, as we discovered in class yesterday when confronted with tāng and táng, the former meaning soup and the latter sugar or sweets – could make for an interesting meal if you get it wrong. 

For learners of Chinese there are a couple of useful sites that can help them work independently to  “tune” their ear into the different sounds of Chinese and learn to distinguish between the various tones.  New Concept Mandarin has an introduction to Pinyin with a table where you can click on any combination of initial and final and get the sound for each tone; this is also represented visually. 

There is something similar on Chinesepod, where they make the point that you can’t read Pinyin, just as you would English, something which learners find confusing at times.  Chinesepod also has all the sound files in downloadable form which can be useful if you are putting together resources. 

My learners often ask me the Chinese use Pinyin;  the answer is that they don’t, at least not apart from when they first start to learn to read.  Pinyin was developed as a way of increasing literacy amongst the Chinese population and certainly helps us non native speakers get into the language faster than we would do otherwise.  Another resource which I’ve just come across  is this song  (also accessible from the Chinese songs page) which groups the initials and finals together by similar sound; it then moves on to the tones.  I could envisage developing some actions to go along with it….

Actions associated with sounds is at the heart of Rachel Hawkes’ philosophy of teaching phonics early in the language learning process.  Her website has a wealth of resources for Spanish, German and French.

Learn Chinese with Chinese TV

September 17, 2010


Back in July I was fortunate enough to be invited by the school where I teach part time  to accompany a party of Year 12 students participating in the SSAT/DCSF/Hanban summer camp for UK students in China in July.  It was an amazing experience not least to see the way in which our students “bonded” with their Chinese “partners” during the nine days we spent at Changzhou Senior High school in Jiangsu Province. 

We spent a few days at the beginning and end of the trip in Beijing where we were accommodated in a 5 star hotel – 谢谢 Hanban!  Surfing through the TV options one of the evenings I came across the English channel on Chinese TV, and more specifically a programme for learning Chinese – it was all about eating snacks and  the typical delicacies of Beijing.  When I got back home I thought I’d just do a google search to check out whether there was anything available online and was pleased to discover that there are several series for learning Chinese produced by CNTV.

At the beginner’s level there is Easy Chinese, broadcast originally at the time of the Beijing Olympics and consisting mainly of short dialogues and basic phrases based on some typical tourist scenarios – shopping, booking accommodation, eating drinking, finding your way and so on.  The presenter first explains the vocabulary and then finds an unsuspecting tourist (!) to teach the phrases to.  The key phrases are given on the webpage for each individual video in characters, English and, in most cases, Pinyin.   Each video is very short (mainly less than five minutes) so could be useful in the classroom.  However, there is possibly a bit too much English spoken in it so it is probably better suited to the individual learner, either wanting to reinforce something he/she has learnt or to learn some new vocabulary.

Also at this level is Growing up with Chinese which is aimed at teenage beginners.   To date there are 9 episodes available online which cover things such as greetings, name, nationality, family, age, saying thank you etc.  The video content is available either streamed or can be downloaded with Realplayer and there is also a downloadable transcript of the key dialogues in characters, pinyin and English.  Each episode has a full explanation of the language content and new sentence patterns along with information on things of cultural significance.  Lesson 5 on Simple enquiries for example has quite a lot on the significance of the colours yellow and red in Chinese culture.

Finally, at beginners’ level  there are also short 5 minute  audio episodes from CRI chinese Studio.  The transcript is on the page for each episode (of which there are 190+ to date).  Unfortunately these appear only to be streamed live and not downloadable as a podcast – a pity as they would be perfect for “on the go” listening and learning.

Moving on to Intermediate level there’s Communicate in Chinese which is suitable for older learners.  The early episodes cover some familiar ground such as dates, time and numbers, but later episodes move on to topics such as opinions, being a guest etc and are more challenging.  Not all of these appear to be downloadable and I’ve  experienced occasional interruptions whilst the video is buffering which is irritating –  so better for individual use rather than in class.  As with the beginners’ series there are some useful insights into cultural matters such as not losing “face” along with analysis of words and phrases.  The transcript on the web page is only in characters and in English, not Pinyin, but Pinyin does appear on the video alongside the characters for some of the vocabulary.

At Advanced level there are several series:  Happy journey across China  and Happy Chinese – daily life, both of which are all in Chinese with English subtitles.  Travel in Chinese is also reckoned to be at the same level, but is introduced in English and has more by way of explanation for the dialogues.  It was the episode on Beijing snacks that I saw on TV in the hotel in Beijing!  Sports Chinese is a similar series based round sporting events such as the Beijing Olympics.

For really advanced learners there is also Special Chinese – audio podcasts of the news in the Chinese with an English transcript, explanations of some of the vocabulary and some comprehension exercises.

In addition to the language videos and audio material there is also a video series on culture which covers such things as festivals, calligraphy, paper cutting and much else, whilst the Chopsticks series is all about how to cook typical Chinese dishes.

All in all this website has a lot of useful materials for the Chinese learner at whatever level some of which could be used in the classroom.